Fact or fiction: Can a rain barrel save you money?

Reader robblat asked about rain barrels: Are they useful? How much do they cost? Where do you get one? My wife just installed a rain barrel last year, so I asked her to explain how they work.

For my birthday last year, I asked my parents for a rain barrel. After doing some research online, I went to our local nursery and paid $100 for a complete barrel set up. While it will mean a small savings on our future water bills, the upfront cost is really too high to justify it from a purely financial standpoint. Instead, I wanted to collect rainwater for several other reasons.

Collecting a Renewable Resource For Our Own Use

Rainwater belongs to everyone, right? But for the most part, we are dependent on a vast infrastructure to collect, purify and deliver this most basic of life's requirements to our doors (er, faucets). I like the idea of harnessing a bit of that rain before it makes it through the whole human system. My plants don't need chlorinated water, anyway! Plus, anecdotal evidence on gardening websites suggests that plants do better with lukewarm rainwater than cold tap water.

Minimal Money Savings

If you are serious about reducing your irrigation water use from the municipal water supply (and thus your bills), you can rig up a system of multiple rain barrels. One or more is attached to the house's downspout; the rest of the barrels are linked to the first ones to collect their overflow when it's really raining.

Get this: if you have 1,000 square feet of roof surface area, then one inch of rainfall will produce over 600 gallons of rainwater. How big is your roof? I have my rain barrel hooked up to our detached garage (an old carriage house), and its roof is about 300 square feet. If you cut that in half (I'm only getting the rain from half the roof) and do the math, my 60-gallon rain barrel will be filled by just two-thirds of an inch of rainfall. In Oregon, that's easy! The overflow drains through a tube that I have draped under the boxwood hedge, or I could collect it in a secondary container.

Convenience

Our 3/5-acre lot has a grand total of one outside spigot, right by the house. Watering the far reaches of the gardens (vegetable, fruit, and flower) requires lugging hoses across the lawn and around trees. With the rain barrel at the garage, I can easily fill a watering can or bucket for the flower beds for some quick spot watering. While the gravity-fed flow of the rain barrel isn't typically enough pressure to power a sprinkler, it would be enough for a short soaker hose. A rain barrel by the patio would be ideal for watering potted flowers and container plants near the house.

A Few More Considerations

Rain barrels come in many sizes and designs. Some are made to be pretty; others, not so much. Some are made from recycled or reused materials. A few have a flat side so they can sit flush against the wall, or have built-in storage for hoses and such. There's plenty to choose from, but this is a bulky item, so avoid shipping costs and find a local store that stocks them. You may think a big plastic barrel isn't your idea of garden décor, but what's more fashionable than not wasting water?

You can certainly make your own if you are handy and have a source for a large food-grade barrel. It must be food grade so you aren't having plastics leach into the water that you're using to water your carrots. And be sure to have a screen to close it off. This will prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the barrel and keep leaves, mischievous animals, and small meteorites out.

Like any irrigation supply dependent on rainfall, sometimes you'll have too much and sometimes not enough. July, August and September are pretty dry here (I kid you not), so my barrel did run dry last summer. But it doesn't take much rain to fill it back up. I tend to do most of my flower garden-watering in the spring when I've just planted seeds and seedlings and they're not fully established yet. The rain barrel is perfect for those dry, beautiful 75-degree days between our Spring rainstorms.

Watch the overflow location: you may need to extend the overflow hose to prevent drainage near your home's foundation. Portland actually gives residents a one-time credit if the house gutters are disconnected from the storm sewer system. Rain barrels have been popping up like wild flowers in certain neighborhoods!

Today rain barrels — maybe in a decade or two, solar panels so we can go off the grid?

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baddriver
baddriver
13 years ago

“While the gravity-fed flow of the rain barrel isn’t typically enough pressure to power a sprinkler, it would be enough for a short soaker hose.”

If you raised the barrel off the ground you would increase the amount of pressure delivered by the barrel. Each foot of height provides 0.43 PSI (pounds per square Inch) (from: http://www.howstuffworks.com/water.htm). Not much maybe, but it would help.

Corey
Corey
13 years ago

Thanks for the tips! This was a very interesting read. I was amazed at how many gallons one 1/4 of rain would produce.

Max
Max
13 years ago

Our local county
has a fairly enlightened view on water conservation and landfill diversion.

They offer
subsidized rain barrels for $30 (but only once a year). However, at the local landfill, they also offer free composters, and have a very good recycling program.

A
A
13 years ago

Bugs love to lay their larvae in water like that…

beanspants1
beanspants1
13 years ago

plus you could dump a fish in the thing and blast at it, like grandpappy used to do!

and i don’t know, at around $100, it might not be finacially viable in 1 year in a rainy state, but in a more deserty area, where watering restrictions during the summer are the norm, it probably does make fiancial sense in 1 year. the fines if they catch you illegally watering are around $100!

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

Hey! Nice to see this article make publication. We’ve caught rainwater in barrels and have used it in the garden for several years. We got ours from a municipal program for ~$60 each. They are filled and drained *multiple* times each growing season. I love ’em. Our first pair of barrels, back at our old house, are still going strong after maybe 8 years–no indication whatsoever that they’re going to wear out or anything. So the upfront costs may be pretty steep but over time I imagine we’ll at least break even, if not come out ahead on the water… Read more »

dimes
dimes
13 years ago

I can’t think of rain barrels without thinking of that illustrious fellow who drowned his kids in his rain barrel, but whatever floats your boat.
I never thought of meteorites being a concern either, but I guess growing Martian colonies in Oregon without a permit might be against the law. Too bad. 🙂
I kind of have to wonder if this thing doesn’t create a false economy though.

Kathy
Kathy
13 years ago

We got a number of food grade barrels through craigslist–in the Portland Oregon area, the price ranged from $20 to $35 late last summer. It’s on our list for next weekend to get them set up for garden irrigation for this summer.

Gaming the Credit System
Gaming the Credit System
13 years ago

“Small meteorites”! Ha! 😀

borderguy
borderguy
13 years ago

There are some jurisdictions where the “Blue Nile Virus” mosquitoes live — like mine in Southwestern Ontario — where rain barrels are prohibited or at least strongly discouraged. If you want to stop the mosquito laying eggs you need a layer of biofriendly soap/oil mixture to cover the top so that the larvae can’t use their breather tubes to get air. That said, my next door neighbor collected all of his rainwater for years and deposited it into a pool — a cistern — where he used a solar-charged battery-driven electrical pump to water his rather enormous (subsistence sized) garden.… Read more »

Denise
Denise
13 years ago

I don’t know if West Nile has made it to Oregon yet, but any type of standing water is really *not* recommended in any area where West Nile exists, since it’s an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

MizD
MizD
13 years ago

Note for Portland area folks: Yoshida Foods International out by the airport has used 55 gallon food-grade drums for five bucks each. Call ahead to make sure they’re in stock as they go quickly!

Norman
Norman
13 years ago

West Nile posters-
The rain barrel opening in the post (and mine) are covered with a fine mesh screen. Wouldn’t this keep out the mosquitoes?

Josh
Josh
13 years ago

Another option is to put the “barrel”/tank underground. Then you can get a large tank that won’t overflow and you can route ALL of your downspouts to it if you wish. Throw a small pump in there and you CAN run regular sprinkler & irrigation systems on it.

Another option, which I’ve employed here, is to take my AC & dehumidifier’s condensate lines and routed them into a french drain that I have burried in trench below my garden. Even in the dry season, I find my garden plants growing quite nicely even when I’ve neglected to water them.

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
13 years ago

I like that you asked for this as a gift. I recently got a huge kick out of giving a couple a composting bin, which they had included in their gift registry. (they already head a rain barrel, courtesy of their local municipality here in Philadelphia.)
Especially for weddings, you’re going to get gifts anyway, so including things like this which appeal to the eco-crowd is creative.

yargs
yargs
13 years ago

Is water from my 25 year old asbestos shingled roof with (probable)galvanized steel nails safe to use with vegetable or fruit plants?

A J MARTIN
A J MARTIN
13 years ago

Be sure to use mosquito dunks in any standing water…including your sump pump in the basement if you have one. West Nile is killing birds all over its range.

IowaCitizen
IowaCitizen
13 years ago

yargs – you’re right to be concerned about the surface of the roof from which the rainwater is collected. Surely asphalt can’t be good for plants we intend to eat. Maybe ok for grass?
I’d be interested to know if others have info on this, or the effects of other surfaces: painted metal &c.

borderguy
borderguy
13 years ago

@norman: I would think that a screen is good; but I would still put in a mosquito dunk (as mentioned by AJ Martin) or BTI to control the mosquito population. @yargs: I would get the water tested if there is any question in your mind. Generally, plants take up anything sprayed on them or taken up by their roots. So even if you are using rainwater you need to make sure that the water is clear of pollutants and and free of organisms. Remember that the spinach recall this past winter occurred because water containing e. coli bacteria was sprayed… Read more »

jamie
jamie
13 years ago

if you ever do install solar panels, please connect them to the grid so that others can benefit from them when they are overproducing and so that you can benefit from the grid when the panels aren’t getting the sun they need. “off the grid” systems are more complicated and require expensive battery systems, while “grid-tied” systems allow you make sure all the electricity generated by your system gets used and might even allow you to sell your excess electricity back to the utlity!

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

My parents have a large rain barrel and they use a goldfish to keep the bugs down. I don’t think they even have to feed it for most of the Summer. When the weather cools off and the bugs go away, they scoop it up and put it in a small tank in their kitchen. They’ve had the same $2 goldfish for 3 years.

glh
glh
13 years ago

If you’re a portlander, Check out http://www.Harvestthesky.com – this local service has great info and will install them for you. Plus, if you have a chinook book you can receive a discount at harvest the sky. (chinook is also fun bc it easily pays for itself and makes a great idea source for dates out with your sweetheart.) Rainbarrels and drip irrigation are definitly next on my landcaping wish list.

Kris
Kris
13 years ago

Readers have brought up good questions about mosquitos and the safety of using roof run-off water. I’m by no means an expert, but here are my semi-educated answers. If anyone has links to more fact sources, please send them my way. Re: mosquitos. West Nile is probably on its way to the Willamette Valley, so providing a mosquito breeding ground is definitely something to avoid. As I said, the rain barrels have a mesh screen across the top. I had thought this would serve to prevent mosquitoes from choosing my rain barrel as their love nest, but I’ll try to… Read more »

Alfonso
Alfonso
13 years ago

From experience:
my former in-laws built their house almost off-grid; only electricity. they built their house with three water tanks: collection, use and storage. the last one is undergroud and the largest, almost a thousand litres. the first one is the smallest.
water goes from tank one to three, and a pump is needed to fill the second tank.
they live in a ver forested area, almost rain-forest-like, above 1000 metres above sea level.

Steve
Steve
13 years ago

Seems a little expensive. Over here in the UK i paid 30 UKP (about $60), that includes 17.5% tax, but I got a 200L barrel with stand and diverter kit.

Acually its not a true barrel, more an open container with childproof lid. It filled in less than half a day (good old british weather!), so I went out an got another, and joined the two together. I pay 2$ per cubic meter of water, so I guess the payback will be quite a long time, but they will last, and rainwater is better for the plants anyway

KMull
KMull
13 years ago

very interesting link, j.d. always interested in hearing about more ‘green’ ideas.

Jill
Jill
13 years ago

I had held off on getting a rain barrel, mainly because of the steep $100 price tag at my local shop. During a time of drought, I decided to create a crude rain barrel system with two 20 gallon trash cans under my downspouts. I was amazed at how quickly they filled with only light rainfall. To think all these years I’ve been letting valuable water drain into the sewer! Since I live in an area where West Nile is a problem, I knew that I had to figure out a way to either cover this water source or transfer… Read more »

Megan
Megan
12 years ago

While most plants won’t suffer too much from city water (unless your water is extremely hard), carnivorous plants, many orchids, and other more finicky plants would prefer rainwater. Much cheaper than the alternative, which is a Reverse Osmosis filter…

Rainwater is also a good idea for the fan-type humidifiers, that will otherwise leave white dust all over everything around them.

An alternative to a rain barrel is a “Rain Garden”, designed to control and buffer runoff before it gets into streams.

austin
austin
12 years ago

i put a rain barrel on 500 square foot (half) of my roof last week. last night, we experienced our first good rain for the Fall. the 0.51 inches of rain filled the 55 gallon drum and overflowed. It spilt into the yard for several hours…makes ya think about how it ends up bleached or overflowing in the river with all the ….. i’ll just call it CSOs……

Jon Elliotte
Jon Elliotte
12 years ago

If you live in the Portland area you can indeed save money by having a rain barrel on your property. Rate payers can recieve up to 100% discount on their stormwater charges by managing the stormwater run off on their property. For more information on this go to http://www.rainbarrelman.com

Rain Man
Rain Man
12 years ago

Want more pressure? Check this out:

http://cgi.ebay.com/Rain-Barrel-Pump-Electric_W0QQitemZ250223005598QQihZ015QQcategoryZ29522QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

There must be a better way to capture and reuse water…

Rick Saffery
Rick Saffery
12 years ago

Rain barrels are a terrific idea. It’s nice to see them come back in to vogue. Consider my simple twist on this application. I use a battery operated pump that delivers 200gallon/hour flow rate. This is equivalent pressure to most residential taps. No need to rely on gravity! Pump: http://www.wholesalemarine.com/p/ATT-4140-4/ This pump becomes practical when you use rechargeable NiMH batteries. Batteries: http://www.powersystemsdirect.com/Energizer/D_Cell_NiMH_Rechargeable_Batteries_2_Pack_NH50BP-2_950.php The pump cost is competitive when compared to using spigots. This is directly evident when the number of barrels increases. The batteries recharge in 15 minutes and may be recycled at least 1000 times. Battery run-time is 5… Read more »

Bob
Bob
11 years ago

There is no single answer to this task. I have been doing it slowly to see what works best for my situation, which is complete recovery from a 1600 sq ft roof split level. I’m currently at 8 barrels which drain 5 different downspouts. I will likely ramp up to 10-15 barrels once I determine where additional capacity is needed. As of July 2008 I’m getting barrels as needed from Yoshidas for $10 each. Call and ask for shipping, but they always have one or two whenever I’m in the neighborhood, and two barrels easily fit in the back of… Read more »

Bob
Bob
11 years ago

Followup to 7/21 posting. After some recent rainstorms I have changed a few things. I’m now using 3/4″ PVC ball valves for the outflow when possible as the brass hose bibs have a smaller aperature that easily clogs with small debris and/or chunks of moss that break off the roof. I still use a 1″ threaded opening at the bottom of the barrel. The sequence is 1″ NPT-3/4 PVC adapter, 3/4 PVC stub, 3/4 ball valve, 3/4 PVC stub, 3/4 PVC T, 3/4 PVC to destination, or a short 3/4 PVC stub to a 3/4 PVC- 3/4 NPT adapter for… Read more »

Dan Chapotelle
Dan Chapotelle
11 years ago

Good for you – we have 7 rain barrels and are on a meter. Water prices are increasing at about 9% a year and our city includes our water savings based on what people not on meters pay with our statements. We save over $250 a year according to them so have to wonder why it takes 3 years for your payback.
Check out our web site, you may like what you see. The Garden Watersaver kit is North Americas fastest growing downspout diverter
with over 20000 sold so far this year.

Dan

terri
terri
11 years ago

rainbarrels are great if you live where you get rain year round. in the arid Southwest we get no rain from March to Oct. I have a 3,000 gallon tank to capture rainwater for my modest vegetable garden and am putting in another tank of the same size because I have to supplement with well water. Rainbarrels are not practical here

Bob
Bob
11 years ago

Dan, we get a rebate based on storm water diversion only, which is around $6/mo. Our water cost is IIRC $1.50/100 cu ft or 750 gallons. I figure I can probably use 3000 gallons of water from barrels in the spring/summer for additional yard and garden watering and replenishing my Koi pond, so I figure about $75-80 year total savings. Are you using rain-barrel water in the house? By the time we deal with permits and other hassles this isn’t practical here, even for use in gravity fed toilets.

SJE
SJE
11 years ago

Our town is offering a 50% tax credit – so the upfront cost is lower now. They are talking about hiking water rates to double in the near future. So why wait to install one so that the $ justify themselves for immediate payback – do you calculate a car the same way, probably not…. and it’s just the right thing to do, right now. I got a huge 80 gallon unit that was easy to put together from http://www.aquabarrel.com

Raoul
Raoul
11 years ago

For just about all the information you could possibly need and other things to take into consideration about Domestic Rainwater Harvesting Systems : http://www.RainTankDepot.com

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

I saw this and bought three. http://www.raintankdepot.com/product.aspx?id=1231
I’ll report back after I get them set up. Raoul was right – all the info you could ever want about rainwater harvesting is there.

Raoul
Raoul
11 years ago

I just got an e-mail from http://www.RainTankDepot.com ‘s mailing list that is an Earth Day sale on 4/22 on Rain Barrels and Composters. Use code “CPNEARTHDAY” for 10% off.

Chuck Spidell
Chuck Spidell
10 years ago

For the fellow Portlanders:

Yes, $10 a pop for white barrels. Give them call at 503.284.1114 and ask for “shipping.” Once your connected to the department, let them know you’d like to purchase 55 gallon food barrels and the quantity. Be sure to bring exact cash. They don’t take credit cards. Here’s the address:

Yoshida Group
8440 NE Alderwood Rd
Portland, OR 97220

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&q=8440+NE+Alderwood+Rd,+Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon+97220&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=50.37814,114.169922&ie=UTF8&cd=1&geocode=FV1ltwIdXaOx-A&split=0&t=h&z=16&iwloc=A

Caroline
Caroline
10 years ago

For Portlanders, the Yoshida people are very nice and it is still $10 per barrel.

Owen
Owen
10 years ago

I got my rain barrels from a local guy for free, they were used for the soap in a car wash. It took some cleaning but wasn’t bad. Got all the components I needed at Lowes. Didn’t keep track of what I spent, have two more to make and will do so for them. I have two barrels in operation, I used the threaded openings for my intake from the gutter. Not sure about mosquito’s yet been in operation for about a week and we are still not in the bug season yet. One barrel is for my peach and… Read more »

John Elliott
John Elliott
10 years ago

Owen, As you have probably already discovered, that reducer will not work on your rain barrel. The pressure that comes out of your house spigot is between 40-80 psi with the reducer going down to 8-10 psi. Your barrel on a two foot stand would be about 2 psi. (psi being .43 per foot) I dont know of any store that sells water reducers or timers that go down to 2 psi. Mainstream america hasn’t caught on to low pressure systems yet. We carry special drip irrigation kits for very low pressure systems and timers that will work at zero… Read more »

Owen
Owen
10 years ago

John, guess you didn’t understand what I meant to say, because the rainbarrel is a low pressure system, a drip system should work because you wouldn’t have to use a pressure reducer like you would if you used the water system from the house. I haven’t tried it yet and not sure I will, the whole idea behind the rainbarrel concept is to save money. Drip systems are expensive. I like taking the watering can, filling it up and watering each one of my plants, checking on it’s progress and weeding as I go, much more interactive. After all this… Read more »

Lance Harris
Lance Harris
9 years ago

Reading the post here it seems like a good idea to get some rain barrels and try this out. I have 5 down spouts and I think I’ll put one at every down spout. On Sat. 9/25/10 Clackamas county is hosting a truckload sale. You can get a systern rain barrel for $45.00 at 150 Beavercreek Rd., Oregon city Between 9 AM and 3 PM. Seems like a goo deal.
Question??
For winter would it be best to drain the rain barrels or just let them be?

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